Rishi Sunak has just taken over as the new UK PM. His first few days indicate what his leadership will entail, and his ongoing challenges,
It has been a matter of days since Rishi Sunak took the helm of the good ship Britannia, hoping to keep a politically sinking ship afloat. What can we learn from the short time he has been in charge? It turns out, quite a bit.
Sunak, a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer (a role that most MPs appear to have had a go at these last few months!) with banking experience, is seen to be a safe pair of economic hands. He seems to sit on the more centrist side of the ruling right-wing Conservative Party. Given the schism in the party that sees “One Nation Conservatives” of the center pitted against the more rabid right wing of the ERG and Brexiteer grouping, it is no surprise that Sunak is trying to appeal to both.
In the opening days, he has sought to reverse all of the Truss-era policies and appease those centrists who were opposed to the Truss-Kwarteng trickle-down economic mini-budget. However, to appease the right of the party, Sunak has made a couple of disconcerting decisions.
First, he rehired Suella Baverman as Home Secretary. Truss replaced the very anti-immigration Home Secretary, arch-nemesis of the left, Priti Patel with Braverman. But Braverman is even more anti-immigration and hardline than Patel, ranting in Parliament about the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.” She was forced to step down (fired) at the end of the Truss leadership due to a serious breach of ministerial rules.
However, while still under investigation, she has been rehired. This is a form of virtue signaling on behalf of Sunak, aimed at the right of the party. He will be hard on immigration vicariously through Braverman.
In perhaps an even more overt signal to the right, we heard the news yesterday that he would not be attending the Cop27 climate conference in Egypt, snubbing the talks because of other “pressing domestic commitments.” This decision certainly pleased those ensconced on the right, like Victorianesque Jacob Rees-Mogg:
Context is vital here.
This announcement happened at the same time that ExxonMobil reported a record near-$20bn profit and on the same day as the UN’s environment agency announced there is “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place.” The report concluded that, in terms of the necessary cuts and action to mitigate climate change, progress has been “woefully inadequate.”
Sunak’s new environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, was an interesting choice for that position and represents less than a serious approach toward one of the biggest existential threats to humanity. She yesterday described the summit as just “a gathering of people in Egypt.”
This decision has been met with uproar from opposition parties, environmentalists, and even some within Sunak’s own party. Here, Nadine Dorries, a Boris Johnson ally not exactly known for such tendencies, hit back:
The Liberal Democrats environment spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse, observed, “When Nadine Dorries becomes the voice of reason in the Conservatives, you know we’re in trouble. Rishi Sunak’s cabinet are promising nothing but delays to climate action at a critical point. We must not allow our climate targets to be missed due to this inept Conservative government.”
All other things aside, these two elements alone indicate that Sunak has the same problem as any would-be Tory Party leader and PM: How do you appease a party in schism, a party of two opposing factions, while also giving the country what they want?
He might find out, as those before him have, that you can’t.